Game: The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct
Developer: Terminal Reality
Available on: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows PC, Wii U
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
With AMC’s The Walking Dead well into its third series and Telltale’s hugely successful episodic spin-off now done and dusted (well, mostly, if what we hear is true), the appeal of Robert Kirkman’s zombie-ravaged apocalyptic world can’t be overstated.
Although TellTale went down the interactive comic route with the stirring tale of Lee Everett and Clementine, it was a safe bet that eventually someone would come along and unpack the Industry Standard FPS Cookie-Cutter Kit and start baking themselves some money-biscuits. As with so many made-to-order, licensed video games these days, the bakers responsible for The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct are Activision, who unfortunately have enough money to throw at projects like this, but not enough sense or patience to ensure that the money in question is actually put to good use.
In a nutshell, Survival Instinct is a bad game. There’s no way around it, and no nicer way of putting it. The sad part is that it has a great deal of potential, and could have been so much more.
STORY: Most likely due to their popularity with fans rather than narrative reasons, the story of Survival Instinct focuses on the Dixon brothers, a pair of hillbilly survivalists who were created for the TV show and never featured in Kirkman’s comics. After a brief stint as Old Man Dixon in the opening few minutes, you take over as swarthy hard-nut Daryl for the rest of the story.
The first third of the game involves reaching your brother Merle, who is currently incarcerated in a town overrun with Walkers (or Biters or Eaters, depending on who is speaking). You set off with your Uncle Jess, and what follows is a series of “go here, do this” dogsbody missions loosely strung together into a narrative. Beyond that you’ll be tasked with finding medicine for a sick Merle and then, well, surviving, moving from pit-stop to dead town to pit-stop again, and the “story” never gathers pace or gives you a single reason to give a shit. It’s a prequel where the only important characters are two whose fate we already know, so there’s just no conflict or peril to maintain our interest.
None of Daryl’s charisma comes through in his character, and even the brilliant Michael Rooker, reprising his role as Merle, produces nothing resembling gold. We know the characters, and Terminal Reality are counting on that to the extent that they don’t do a thing to develop either Dixon. Technically speaking, this is an “origins” tale as it takes place at the very beginning of the outbreak, but it reveals nothing we don’t already know. In fact, it’s a complete waste of talent even signing Rooker and Norman Reedus (Daryl) to a game that does so little with their characters.
GRAPHICS: Graphically, Survival Instinct is workable, but that’s about as positive as I can be. Some of the outdoor environments are nice enough, but the whole game is worryingly identikit. Every rest stop you park at to scavenge supplies or gas looks the same but with the furniture rearranged; every town looks like the same town; every deserted store has the same arrangement of abandoned tins, the same little patches of litter, the same shelving. To a certain extent such things can be excused, but not when every other environment is copy/pasted to this extreme.
Character models are lacklustre and lacking in detail, which is kind of thematic since it matches their personalities. Animations are passable, but only just. The Walkers themselves are completely un-scary, even when they pop out to take you by surprise. They have such a comical, disjointed way of moving – almost like ragdoll puppets on taut wires – that it’s hard to take them seriously. And the fact that there are only around 7 or 8 different models is no help. Terminal Reality could have done a lot with the art style in Survival Instinct, buy instead have opted for an aesthetic that is entirely bland and unexciting.
SOUND: This is the point in the review where you should start to see a pattern forming (if you haven’t already). The sound direction is as beige as the art style, and even the aforementioned voice work by Rooker and Reedus can’t save it.
The first few times you hear the telltale groan of a lurking Walker, or the music kicks in to announce that the nearest fan to your current position has been recently spattered with steaming faeces, Survival Instinct will almost have you fooled into thinking that it’s brimming with atmosphere. It’s not, though, because the same music and groan will replay roughly every 8 and a half seconds for the next 5 hours.
GAMEPLAY: Unfortunately, inadvertently tricking us into thinking that their game is good comes worryingly easy to Terminal Reality – if Survival Instinct is anything to go by, at least. They do it several times once the game starts, beginning with the resource management element.
As you travel the American Southwest, you’ll have to keep one eye on your fuel, food and ammo. What they do is self-explanatory, as is why they’re so critical, but you’ll only worry for the first hour about the fuel and ammo. Between each “mission” you’ll be given a choice of routes to take, and three methods to get there. Backroads will burn fuel, offer a low chance of breaking down and present more opportunities to scavenge; highways are the opposite and streets (as though there are actually streets linking towns cross-country) are bang in the middle. Run out of fuel and you’ll be forced to stop and brave the Walkers as you run around a tiny map looking for fuel tanks. Collect three and you can leave.
The first time it happened I was scared; I hopped out of the car in the dark and tried to sneak around the Walkers to conserve life-replenishing food and ammo. By the third time, I just ran in, steam-rolled past everything that moved, got the cans and got out in under a minute. Likewise when you optionally stop to scavenge an area: charging in like a bull strapped to a bulldozer is the best way, blasting anything in your path and scooping up the five or six useful items you’ll find like a blood-spattered Supermarket Sweep.
Along the way you’ll meet other survivors. If you help them, either during a random stop or during optional side missions, they’ll join you provided you have room in your current vehicle. Like the Runners in Divinity II, you can equip them and send them out to forage while you’re otherwise engaged being a lone badass. Why you wouldn’t stick together is anyone’s guess (as is why Daryl is so content to be everyone’s bitch in this game, performing life-threatening tasks for every random stranger he meets). That these secondary survivors often die with zero ceremony makes no difference, as they never speak or show any sign of personality beyond your initial meeting. It’s a nice idea in theory, but like most of Survival Instinct, it’s lazily implemented and largely pointless. In the end, it’s easier to do it all yourself.
Which would be ok, if the combat were a little more inspiring. Killing Walkers, as everyone who watches the show knows, requires massive head trauma. So you can shoot them in the head (which explode, no matter your firearm of choice or distance from the target) or brain them with a blunt weapon. Or, you can slash their face four times with a survival knife – same result. Smashing their brains in takes four hits with a hammer or lead pipe, or one normal hit and a charged-up heavy blow. This is regardless of the type of Walker, as they’re all the same height and build anyway. And you don’t even have to do that: combat is as easy as getting behind a staggering, stupid zombie and holding RB to execute it, over and over again. If you fancy getting it over even quicker, you can let a group of them grab you and then, by way of a tedious minigame, murder them all by knife to the skull. Skewering zombies through the head or breaking open their dirty, rotten skulls certainly sounds like fun; in Survival Instinct, it manages to be boring. Guns are hardly necessary for a large portion of the game, but they do speed things up a little.
And you will want to speed things up. Walkers behave mostly like Walkers (ie, mindless eating machines), but their behavioural AI is shockingly bad. They run into walls, or stand still while you wander by. Sometimes they start running at you, but then stop and stagger away. At other times they’ll smell you coming, and start charging you from 100 yards off. It’s just further proof that Activision have shipped an unfinished game.
LONGEVITY: As most missions involve nothing more than finding someone or retrieving something and then returning to your vehicle, there’s no incentive to dally around outside of arbitrary collectibles. The main narrative will take 5 hours, and there is zero replayability. Given the quality of the single player campaign, I’m incredibly grateful that there’s no multiplayer element.
VERDICT: The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is a bad game. It’s shoddily put together, has been rushed out the door and will rely solely on its subject matter to sell copies. There’s no variety and zero originality on display, and it’s almost shocking just how great the gulf in quality is between this and Telltale’s take on the franchise. I simply can’t recommend this game to anyone. Even fans of the show will get little from it.
The great tragedy, of course, is that Terminal Reality clearly had ideas. Another six to eight months and a little patience from Activision and this really, really could have been better – though perhaps not much. Survival Instinct is not the worst zombie game I’ve ever played (Rebellion’s Shell Shocked 2: Blood Trails is worse), but it’s not far off. A smattering of good ideas are swamped by bad AI, lazy design, ugly aesthetics, lacklustre sound and uninspired combat. Like the Walkers themselves, this is one game that should be given a wide berth.